A Piece in the Puzzle of the Genetic Basis of Memory

A Piece in the Puzzle of the Genetic Basis of Memory

Some people remember details with amazing ease or pick up a new language in no time. Others - not so much. How come?

Studies have shown, that genetics is to blame for a good part of that difference in memory and that the brain neurotransmitter dopamine plays an important role.

New Link Between Genetics and Working Memory

Research from the University of California in Irvine has shown that genetic variants in a gene in the dopamine system have a significant impact on working memory in humans. Working memory is our mind’s ability to hold information long enough to process or manipulate that data. Holding that information in mind is a short-term process, and we are limited in the amount of information that we can remember at once. More specifically: a person can hold approximately 7 pieces of information in their working memory, which explains why telephone numbers are rarely longer than that!

In other words, working memory is like a whiteboard: a space where we can temporarily write down bits of information in order to cross out, tick off or shuffle the order of that data. What are some examples of working memory? Remembering a shopping list, following directions to a cafe or remembering instructions in the classroom are all examples that would require you to use your mental whiteboard.

 The gene in question is NTSR1. It holds the information necessary to build the neurotensin receptor. Receptors are important for a cell and are a way to receive chemical signals from the outside. When the neurotensin receptor is activated, a chain reaction is set in motion resulting in various changes in the cell and the human body. Variations or differences in the gene that encodes this receptor can lead to slight variations and differences in its function and corresponding differences in physiological processes (such as working memory).

Small Change in Genetics, Big Change in Working Memory

The research team set out to investigate whether genetic differences in the NTSR1 gene were associated with working memory performance. Four hundred and sixty healthy individuals were assessed for working memory and five genetic variations (or differences) called SNPs (SNP stands for Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms) in the NTSR1 gene were investigated.

SNPs are the most common type of genetic variation: a variation in a single building block, or ‘letter’ in human DNA. The scientists found that two of five SNPs were significantly associated with improved memory. Meaning if you are a carrier of the rare variant – it is likely that you have better working memory than individuals who do not.

While the genetic basis of memory is still not completely understood, this study adds another piece to the puzzle of how our genes affect our cognition. But what’s more exciting is that now you can find out which variant of the neurotensin receptor gene you have, and how this impacts your working memory! Want to know how? Click here.